The Majority Whip in the Florida House of Representatives, Republican Robert Cortes from District 30 (Orange/Seminole), has introduced a resolution calling for Congress to grant equal civil rights under federal territorial law for 3.5 million U.S. citizens in Puerto Rico.
Cortes wants the State of Florida to offer official support of equal treatment of Puerto Rico under federal law. The purpose is to prevent millions of U.S. citizens from being compelled and in effect coerced to relocate to Florida and other states to attain equal rights of U.S. citizenship denied in Puerto Rico under current federal territorial policy.
Over 800,000 U.S. citizens from Puerto Rico have in effect voted for equal rights and opportunities that come only with statehood by moving to Florida and other states over the last several years. In his proposed resolution, Cortes notes that U.S. citizens in the federally governed territories of Louisiana, Alaska and Hawaii were accorded greater equal civil and constitutional rights than Puerto Rico in the period leading up to statehood.
In comparison, Puerto Rico is still denied the rights 32 other territories enjoyed before becoming states, even though Puerto Rico has been under U.S. rule for 118 years, and even though 100 years have passed since Congress granted birthright U.S. citizenship in the territory.
The resolution authored by Cortes notes that the U.S. Supreme Court recognized in a 1922 ruling that U.S. citizens in Puerto Rico should have ”fundamental rights” and ”due process.” But later rulings by the court have allowed denial of “equal protection” and discrimination under federal territorial law which was not allowed in Louisiana, Alaska, Hawaii and other territories, and would not be allowed in a state.
Representative Cortes cites Louisiana, Alaska and Hawaii because those territories like Puerto Rico also were inhabited by non-citizen natives with diverse cultures and languages other than English when annexed or acquired by treaty from a foreign power. Congress recognized the need to extend equal rights when U.S. citizenship was granted to those territories to the full extent allowed under the U.S. Constitution until admitted as states.
Even though those three territories were less integrated into the national political, economic and legal system than Puerto Rico is today, Congress treated Louisiana, Alaska and Hawaii as equal to 29 other territories that became states. Representative Cortes does not see why the 3.5 million U.S. citizens of Puerto Rico should be treated differently or less equally. While voting rights in federal elections for Congress and President are restricted to citizens in the 50 states by the U.S. Constitution, that does not mean Congress has unrestrained discretion to impose other forms of discriminatory federal territorial law and policy.
Accordingly, the Cortes proposal attacks the false narrative that denial of equal citizenship rights is somehow justified by the inaccurate assertion that citizens in Puerto Rico do not pay federal income taxes. The resolution notes that in addition to paying federal payroll taxes for Social Security and Medicare as U.S. citizens in the states (even though benefits in the territory are lower than in the states), residents of Puerto Rico pay full federal income tax on earnings in the U.S. mainland and international markets.
Even more pronouncedly, Cortes smashes the anti-democratic “no equality without taxation” narrative by pointing out that high local territorial income taxes to fund territorial government is really an alternative federal income tax to pay for the federally imposed less than fully democratic regime of local territorial government. The so-called “commonwealth” regime imposes local taxes that pay for administration of local civil government, which collects taxes locally as surrogate for Congress to pay for public administration that otherwise would be an obligation of the federal government as long as territorial status continues.
In essence, Representative Cortes is making the cogent argument that the assertion that Puerto Rico does not pay federal income tax, but must pay local taxes to run a territory created by Congress without democratic government by consent, is a perversion of the Revolutionary War slogan “no taxation without representation” into an anti-statehood “no representation without taxation” argument. This federal policy denies equal rights to U.S. citizens who are paying local taxes to fund territorial government instituted under federal law that is democratic locally but not at the national level where the supreme federal law is made.
The drumroll of history has begun for Puerto Rico, replaying the political scenario in which existing states begin to recognize that the only thing more problematic for a territory and other states than granting statehood before the time is right is to deny statehood too long. In the case of Florida, it is clear that a federal policy allowing an orderly transition to statehood is the only way to create stability needed for new investment in Puerto Rico, leading to economic recovery.
If that does not happen, hundreds of thousands of our fellow Americans from Puerto Rico, including a high percentage eligible for full Social Security and Medicare benefits not provided equally in the territory will flood Florida and other states like the tidal surge after Hurricane Irma. Cortes is on to something vitally important to his state, and the Florida government should pay attention to the issue he is bringing forward sooner rather than later.